It’s the fall semester of the new year at the local Bible college.
Tim and Ted are brand-new, computer-selected, freshman roommates in the guys’ dorm. Tim became a Calvinist about six months ago. He reads Reformed books, listens to Reformed podcasts, talks incessantly about Reformed theology, and just got a “Soli Deo Gloria” tattoo.
Ted is his roommate. He is not Reformed. In fact, he actually doesn’t like Reformed people or their theology. He listens to Southern Gospel music on tape and opposes tattoos of any kind.
It’s going to be a long semester.
Were we to listen in on their conversations (a.k.a. significant disagreements) throughout their short journey together, we would likely hear a number of things loud and clear. First, we would hear two young men equally passionate about what they believe. This is truly a wonderful thing. Second, we would hear that they actually agree on much more than they disagree on. But they usually shout too loudly to hear it themselves.
I am not going to lead us in a chorus of “Love Can Build a Bridge” and say that things like polity and baptism don’t really matter or “love unites, but doctrine divides.” Yet I have seen over the years how Christians get so consumed with secondary issues that the gospel is obscured, the mission is sidetracked, and the body of Christ is injured.
There must be a better way to fight about the things we can’t seem to agree on. Consider these four ways to fight clean over doctrine.
1. Keep the cross at the center of your theological system.
I have found it impossible to look up to Jesus and then down my nose at a brother or sister with whom I disagree. A cross-centered theology reminds us to keep the “main thing the main thing” and serves as a helpful compass to navigate the landscape of secondary issues. It also helps us see how much we actually share in common and what serves as the source of unity and hope. When the gospel is the center, everything else becomes appropriately resized.
2. Ask yourself some uncomfortable questions.
We all like to assume that we are as cool as ice when the differences come to light, but is this really the case? Ask yourself these questions: What posture do I take in a doctrinal discussion? Do I quickly become agitated? Do I raise your voice easily? How would my wife or those closest to me people describe me during these kinds of situations? Take it a step further and actually ask them. Their answers may surprise you. And help you.
3. Remember that you probably held the other position not too long ago.
Nearly all pastors and theologians I know continually refine their theology. Sure, we may have the “big things” down, but some theological shifting is natural as we learn, grow, and age. If, for example, if you subscribe to a more Reformed understanding of the “doctrines of grace,” there is a strong chance that you haven’t always stood where you stand now. The way you present your ideas has a lot to do with how they’re received. Don’t be another “angry Calvinist.” We have enough of them.
4. Pursue humility with the same passion that you pursue clarity.
This may be the most difficult but necessary pursuit of all. Never forget that studying comes with a built-in occupational hazard: pride. It is so easy to live on the wrong side of 1 Corinthians 8:1b: “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” As we seek to be diligent in out study, we should seek to be equally diligent in our pursuit of humility. To this end, I try to devote myself to prayer, re-reading Philippians 2, and reflecting on Jesus’ finished work on the cross. As we see the great humility of Jesus, the Spirit will cultivate greater humility in us as well.
Tim and Ted were great guys, but they fought dirty and both lost. Too often we fall into the same trap. May God give us the grace today to begin fighting a different fight—with our own sin—so that we fight clean.
Dustin Neeley is a church planter, pastor, writer/speaker, and ministry coach. He lives with his wife and children in Louisville, Kentucky, and is the author of many forthcoming resources. He blogs regularly for Church Planting for the Rest of Us, and you can connect with him on Twitter.